How can citizenship help us address refugee crises in Africa’s Great Lakes Region?


By Lucy Hovil, Senior Researcher, International Refugee Rights Initiative and Zachary Lomo, St August International University, College of Law and Business, Uganda.

With the exception of Tanzania, all the countries in Africa’s Great Lakes region have generated refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in large numbers over the past decades. And despite huge efforts to resolve conflict and displacement, by any standard the number of refugees and IDPs remains painfully high.

This opinion piece argues that the framework of citizenship can contribute positively to a better understanding of, and better policy responses to, forced displacement in this region.[1] In making its argument, it draws on nine case studies carried out in the Great Lakes by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) over six years, as well as a paper that draws together some of the implications for policy makers. Citizenship in this context is understood as access to a bundle of legal rights enjoyed by nationals of a given State; and more broadly as recognition of the right and status of a person to belong in a given political community with all the attendant obligations and other rights.

We argue that while there are many causes of political conflict and displacement in the region, unequal or inadequate access to citizenship has been a major contributing cause. At the same time, not only has the failure to ensure inclusive citizenship contributed to displacement, it has also made it harder to resolve. Understandings of national citizenship as an exclusive right of nationals who belong to a given State limit refugees’ access to citizenship in host states and inhibit local integration. The adoption of refugee policies by States in the region that focus on encampment of refugees in isolated areas is partly informed by this exclusivist notion of citizenship and further undermines the prospects of a refugee’s right to choose to belong in the community to which he or she has been exiled. These policies send a strong message that refugees do not belong to the host State and therefore cannot live as equals to the citizens of their country of exile. As a result, those who are forging lives in urban areas do so against the odds: the difficulties and challenges of belonging that are faced by so many urban refugees is partly a logical consequence of exclusivist notions of citizenship.

At the same time, these same exclusivist notions of citizenship have also made return “home” impossible for many refugees. Therefore the proper realisation of citizenship is one factor that determines whether or not a particular person or group will be forced into displacement; whether they will be able to repatriate; whether they will be accepted by those in their home communities if they do return; how they are perceived in exile both by host communities and those “at home”; whether durable solutions are possible; or whether they will end their lives in exile.

Therefore, there needs to be a paradigm shift in responses to refugees in the region. To some extent this shift is beginning to take place, particularly with increased attention on urban refugees and, more recently, with the announcement by UNHCR that it is developing an “out of camps” policy. However, much remains to be done: convincing governments that they should be more inclusive in their attitudes towards national belonging is a huge challenge.

As a framework for beginning to think about this paradigm shift, we argue that discussions around durable solutions – a discussion that should begin as soon as someone has been prised from their home – need to be viewed through a citizenship lens. This approach has several implications.

First, in the case of repatriation there needs to be recognition that repatriation can only be called repatriation when there is a genuine re-assertion of the bond of citizenship between citizen and state, permitting the latter to protect the former and the former to engage in dialogue on the nature of the protection required. For this to happen, building up of civic trust between those returning and the state to which they are returning needs to be prioritised in any repatriation process. Without re-establishing the state/citizen bond and the realisation of their full rights as citizens, refugees will continue to resist return – and others who face similar exclusion will continue to flee.

Second, repatriation should not be assumed to be the only or preferred solution. The preconception that the only place refugees can legitimately belong is in their original homes both drives, and is driven by, an emphasis on repatriation that has been promoted by both national governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Repatriation is seen not only as the most favoured durable solution, but at times the only solution. This attitude has inhibited the possibilities for forging new forms of belonging, whether through local integration or resettlement to a third country. It also prevents refugees in protracted situations from integrating meaningfully in the meantime (unless they choose to fall off the official radar and “self-settle”, albeit with a different set of challenges), creating strong feelings of marginalisation and alienation.

Third, therefore, there needs to be greater emphasis placed on local integration as a durable solution to exile and as a means of re-establishing citizenship rights. Those in exile desire meaningful citizenship, not least in situations where returning “home” is unlikely to be possible for the foreseeable future. In this context, local integration should be promoted as both a temporary and long-term solution to displacement. Integrating refugees into the host community empowers them to act as rational actors capable of addressing their own needs, as opposed to passive recipients of humanitarian aid in camps. Yet over the past decades, local integration as a durable solution has, in effect, been everywhere except on the political agenda,[2] with protectionist approaches to citizenship being one of the greatest blocks to local integration.

Finally, the research showed that for people to be safe they need to secure longing at both a national and local level. In other words, for local integration to function as a genuine solution, refugees need to gain acceptance at both the national and local level. Therefore, where informal local integration – a complex and finely tuned process of negotiation between refugees and the host population – is already occurring it needs to be encouraged and supported. And one of the key ways in which local belonging can be supported is through the way in which humanitarian assistance is given to refugees and their hosts. The findings have shown that refugee policy, by isolating refugees in settlements or camps, reinforces separation, undermines local integration and should be avoided wherever possible. At the same time, urban refugees often have to ‘disappear’ in order to avoid being moved to the camps – which, again, undermines mechanisms for local integration as it forces them off the official radar. The benefits to humanitarian programming in the short-term – as well as the misappropriated policy assumptions that underlie the settlement policy – are small compared to the benefits of allowing refugees to integrate freely within their country of exile.

In summary, therefore, we argue that the problem of conflict, displacement, and refugees in the Great Lakes region is intertwined with the crisis of citizenship and the logic of inclusion and exclusion. And our findings demonstrate that current refugee policy instruments suffer from two overarching defects. First, the emphasis is placed on repatriation without addressing the need for reintegration and the re-establishment of the right to belong. Second, local integration (with citizenship as one element of that) is not considered by governments or the UNHCR as a solution, even for refugees who have lived in exile for long periods of time, leaving those in camps, and those who have opted ‘out’ and are living in urban areas, vulnerable.

The way forward lies in a process whereby refugee policies in the region are re-aligned to become more inclusive, and to have a focus on the dignity and resourcefulness of refugees. Refugee policies need to view refugees as rational actors who are generally better placed, either as individuals or as communities, to determine what their interests are and how to protect their rights. This assertion translates into a policy that promotes an organic process of interaction between refugees and host communities that starts at the onset of a refugee influx and allows both to mutually benefit from each other; that identifies potential areas of tension and encourages collaboration between both communities to identify ways of removing the cause of that tension; and that allows local actors to benefit from the economic and business opportunities that result from the presence of the refugees and thereby minimises xenophobia.

Lucy Hovil and Zachary Lomo, article dated 15.07.14

[1] The Great Lakes region consists of the territory covering 12 states that are members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR): Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia.

[2] Lucy Hovil, “Local Integration,” in Ed. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al., The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration, Studies., Oxford University Press, 2014.

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